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The Invisible Bank Bailout

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August 23, 2010

By now, you are probably more than familiar with the “backdoor bailouts” of the Wall Street Banks – the most infamous of which, Maiden Lane III, included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs as a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper.  Despite Goldman’s claims of having repaid the money it received from TARP, the $13 billion obtained via Maiden Lane III was never repaid.  Goldman needed it for bonuses.

On August 21, my favorite reporter for The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, discussed another “bank bailout”:  a “secret tax” that diverts money to banks at a cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers.  Here’s how it works:

Sharply cutting interest rates vastly increases banks’ profits by widening the spread between what they pay to depositors and what they receive from borrowers.  As such, the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy is yet another government bailout for the very industry that drove the economy to the brink.

Todd E. Petzel, chief investment officer at Offit Capital Advisors, a private wealth management concern, characterizes the Fed’s interest rate policy as an invisible tax that costs savers and investors roughly $350 billion a year.  This tax is stifling consumption, Mr. Petzel argues, and is pushing investors to reach for yields in riskier securities that they wouldn’t otherwise go near.

*   *   *

“If we thought this zero-interest-rate policy was lowering people’s credit card bills it would be one thing but it doesn’t,” he said.  Neither does it seem to be resulting in increased lending by the banks.  “It’s a policy matter that people are not focusing on,” Mr. Petzel added.

One reason it’s not a priority is that savers and people living on fixed incomes have no voice in Washington.  The banks, meanwhile, waltz around town with megaphones.

Savers aren’t the only losers in this situation; underfunded pensions and crippled endowments are as well.

Many commentators have pointed out that zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”) was responsible for the stock market rally that began in the Spring of 2009.  Bert Dohmen made this observation for Forbes back on October 30, 2009:

There is very little, if any, investment buying.  In my view, we are seeing a mini-bubble in the stock market, fueled by ZIRP, the “zero interest rate policy” of the Fed.

At this point, retail investors (the “mom and pop” customers of discount brokerage firms) are no longer impressed.  After the “flash crash” of May 6 and the revelations about stock market manipulation by high-frequency trading (HFT), retail investors are now avoiding mutual funds.  Graham Bowley’s recent report for The New York Times has been quoted and re-published by a number of news outlets.   Here is the ugly truth:

Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group.  Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.

The pretext of providing “liquidity” to the stock markets is no longer viable.  The only remaining reasons for continuing ZIRP are to mitigate escalating deficits and stopping the spiral of deflation.  Whether or not that strategy works, one thing is for certain:  ZIRP is enriching the banks —  at the public’s expense.



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Geithner Watch

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August 19, 2010

It’s that time once again.  The Treasury Department has launched another “charm offensive” – and not a moment too soon.  “Turbo” Tim Geithner got some really bad publicity at the Daily Beast website by way of a piece by Philip Shenon.  The story concerned the fact that a man named Daniel Zelikow — while in between revolving door spins at JP Morgan Chase — let Geithner live rent-free in Zelikow’s $3.5 million Washington townhouse, during Geithner’s first eight months as Treasury Secretary.  Zelikow (who had previously worked for JP Morgan Chase from 1999 until 2007) was working at the Inter-American Development Bank at the time.  The Daily Beast described the situation this way:

At that time, Geithner was overseeing the bailout of several huge Wall Street banks, including JPMorgan, which received $25 billion in federal rescue funds from the TARP program.

Zelikow, a friend of Geithner’s since they were classmates at Dartmouth College in the early 1980s, begins work this month running JPMorgan’s new 12-member International Public Sector Group, which will develop foreign governments as clients.

*   *   *

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who is a specialist in government ethics and author of a leading textbook on legal ethics, described Geithner’s original decision to move in with Zelikow last year as “just awful” —  given the conflict-of-interest problems it seemed to create.

He tells The Daily Beast that Geithner now needs to avoid even the appearance of assisting JPMorgan in any way that suggested a “thank-you note” to Zelikow in exchange for last year’s free rent.

“He needs to be purer than Caesar’s wife — purer than Caesar’s whole family,” Gillers said of the Treasury secretary.

The Daily Beast story came right on the heels of Matt Taibbi’s superlative article in Rolling Stone, exposing the skullduggery involved in removing all the teeth from the financial “reform” bill.  Taibbi did not speak kindly of Geithner:

If Obama’s team had had their way, last month’s debate over the Volcker rule would never have happened.  When the original version of the finance-­reform bill passed the House last fall  – heavily influenced by treasury secretary and noted pencil-necked Wall Street stooge Timothy Geithner – it contained no attempt to ban banks with federally insured deposits from engaging in prop trading.

Just when it became clear that Geithner needed to make some new friends in the blogosphere, another conclave with financial bloggers took place on Monday, August 16.  The first such event took place last November.  I reviewed several accounts of the November meeting in a piece entitled “Avoiding The Kool -Aid”.  Since that time, Treasury has decided to conduct such meetings 4 – 6 times per year.  The conferences follow an “open discussion” format, led by individual senior Treasury officials (including Turbo Tim himself) with three presenters, each leading a 45-minute session.  A small number of financial bloggers are invited to attend.  Some of the bloggers who were unable to attend last November’s session were sorry they missed it.  The August 16 meeting was the first one I’d heard about since the November event.  The following bloggers attended the August 16 session:  Phil Davis of Phil’s Stock World, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, John Lounsbury for Ed Harrison’s Credit Writedowns, Michael Konczal of Rortybomb, Steve Waldman of Interfluidity, as well as Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution.  As of this writing, Alex Tabarrok and John Lounsbury were the only attendees to have written about the event.  You can expect to see something soon from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism.

At this juncture, the effort appears to have worked to Geithner’s advantage, since he made a favorable impression on Alex Tabarrok, just as he had done last November with Tabarrok’s partner at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen:

As Tyler said after an earlier visit, Geithner is smart and deep.  Geithner took questions on any topic.  Bear in mind that taking questions from people like Mike Konczal, Tyler, or Interfluidity is not like taking questions from the press.  Geithner quickly identified the heart of every question and responded in a way that showed a command of both theory and fact.  We went way over scheduled time.  He seemed to be having fun.

It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming accounts of the meeting continue to provide Geithner with the image makeover he so desperately needs.


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Bogus Editorial Gets Exposed

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August 16, 2010

One of my favorite commentators, Bill Fleckenstein, wrote an interesting piece calling attention to the fact that the Patent Office is underfunded to the tune of about $1 billion.  The good news is that fixing this problem might create as many as 2.5 million new jobs over the next three years.  Fleck based his article on a New York Times essay by Paul Michel (former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit) and Henry Nothhaft, co-author of the upcoming book, Great Again.

Bill Fleckenstein began his discussion by noting another letdown by our Disappointer-In-Chief:

As the financial crisis was unfolding in late 2008 and early 2009, I actually thought for a while that the incoming Obama administration might try to do something intelligent regarding incentivizing jobs.  That was 100% incorrect.  The only incentives it has created are ones not to hire more employees, which has only made a bad situation worse.

Unfortunately, Fleck decided to support his perspective with an editorial from the August 9 Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why I’m Not Hiring” by Michael Fleischer.  Fleischer whined about how President Obama has made things difficult for his “little company in New Jersey, where we provide audio systems for use in educational, commercial and industrial settings.”  Fleischer concluded the piece with this lament:

And even if the economic outlook were more encouraging, increasing revenues is always uncertain and expensive.  As much as I might want to hire new salespeople, engineers and marketing staff in an effort to grow, I would be increasing my company’s vulnerability to government decisions to raise taxes, to policies that make health insurance more expensive, and to the difficulties of this economic environment.

A life in business is filled with uncertainties, but I can be quite sure that every time I hire someone my obligations to the government go up.  From where I sit, the government’s message is unmistakable:  Creating a new job carries a punishing price.

Bill Fleckenstein was not the only commentator who was apparently “taken in” by this editorial.  It has been getting re-blogged all over the Web.

What most people don’t realize is that the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial, Michael Fleischer, is the brother of Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush.

Kevin Drum wrote a piece for Mother Jones, which began with his criticism of the Journal for not admitting that the aforementioned editorial was written by Ari Fleischer’s brother.  Beyond that, Mr. Drum provided us with a little more information about Michael Fleischer’s background:

Michael, thanks to his White House connections, was one of the squadron of free market evangelizers who parachuted into Baghdad to privatize Iraqi industry after the war.  We all know how well that went, which is probably what qualifies him to write op-eds about creeping Obama-ism for the Wall Street Journal.

Drum then quoted this reader’s comment, posted at the Outside The Beltway blog, concerning the Fleischer editorial:

The fact is that if Mr. Fleisher’s company has to buy an extra box of paper clips it will cause them to go belly up.  He’s in not position to hire anyone regardless of tax policy.

The reason Mr. Fleischer’s company isn’t hiring has nothing to do with taxes or the policies of any administration.  It’s because his business has been in decline for a decade.  As the CEO, that decline is his fault.  All his complaining about taxes and benefits is just a smokescreen for his own incompetence.

The world changed around them a decade ago and they failed to adapt.  In 2000, their annual sales were 66 million dollars with cash on hand of 12 million.  By 2003, sales were down to 55 million and cash was down to 6 million.  That was before the financial crisis and under the allegedly pro business policies of the previous administration.  In 2009, sales were down to 44 million and cash was down to 2 million.     They managed to lose 17 million dollars that year and got a carry back refund of some 5 million dollars.  Mr. Fleischer should spend less time complaining about taxes and more time thinking about how he can correct 10 years of mismanagement.

Don’t take my word for it, read the balance sheets yourself.

http://www.bogen.com/aboutus/financials/#historical

Another blogger had some fun digging into the truth about Fleischer’s Bogen Communications and hanging out the dirty laundry on the Internet:

Here’s the thing, though.  If you actually look into Bogen, you find out that there are far better reasons for why Fleischer isn’t hiring.  Like the stock price absolutely cratering last year.  Or the settlement that they reached with a contractor who alleged “multiple causes of action for breach of contract and various torts”; a settlement that came after the contractor had already been awarded a cool $12.5 mil in “compensatory and punitive damages.”

It’s always funny when a political hatchet job gets exposed.  It’s even funnier when the perpetrators are too dumb to realize that —  in  what Marshall McLuhan used to call “the electronic information environment” (back in the 1960s)  — it’s pretty easy to dig up the truth.

Anyone trying to ascertain the truth about why companies aren’t hiring would be better served to peruse websites such as MarketWatch or Bloomberg, rather than the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.  Bill Fleckenstein should have known better.



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Getting Rolled By Wall Street

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August 5, 2010

For the past few years, investors have been flocking to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) as an alternative to mutual funds, which often penalize investors for bailing out less than 90 days after buying in.  The ETFs are traded on exchanges in the same manner as individual stocks.  Investors can buy however many shares of an ETF as they desire, rather than being faced with a minimum investment as required by many mutual funds.  Other investors see ETFs as a less-risky alternative than buying individual stocks, since some funds consist of an assortment of stocks from a given sector.

The most recent essay by one of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, is focused on the ETFs that are based on commodities, rather than stocks.  As it turns out, the commodity ETFs have turned out to be yet another one of Wall Street’s weapons of mass financial destruction.  Paul Farrell brings the reader’s attention to a number of articles written on this subject – all of which bear a theme similar to the title of Mr. Farrell’s piece:  “Commodity ETFs: Toxic, deadly, evil”.

Mr. Farrell discussed a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, exposing the hazards inherent in commodity ETFs.  That article began by discussing the experience of a man who invested $10,000 in an ETF called the U.S. Oil Fund (ticker symbol: USO), designed to track the price of light, sweet crude oil.  The investor’s experience became a familiar theme for many who had bought into commodity ETFs:

What happened next didn’t make sense.  Wolf watched oil go up as predicted, yet USO kept going down.  In February 2009, for example, crude rose 7.4 percent while USO fell by 7.4 percent.  What was going on?

What was going on was something called “contango”.  The BusinessWeek article explained it this way:

Contango is a word traders use to describe a specific market condition, when contracts for future delivery of a commodity are more expensive than near-term contracts for the same stuff.  It is common in commodity markets, though as Wolf and other investors learned, it can spell doom for commodity ETFs. When the futures contracts that commodity funds own are about to expire, fund managers have to sell them and buy new ones; otherwise they would have to take delivery of billions of dollars’ worth of raw materials.  When they buy the more expensive contracts — more expensive thanks to contango — they lose money for their investors.  Contango eats a fund’s seed corn, chewing away its value.

*   *   *

Contango isn’t the only reason commodity ETFs make lousy buy-and-hold investments.  Professional futures traders exploit the ETFs’ monthly rolls to make easy profits at the little guy’s expense.  Unlike ETF managers, the professionals don’t trade at set times.  They can buy the next month ahead of the big programmed rolls to drive up the price, or sell before the ETF, pushing down the price investors get paid for expiring futures.  The strategy is called “pre-rolling.”

“I make a living off the dumb money,” says Emil van Essen, founder of an eponymous commodity trading company in Chicago.  Van Essen developed software that predicts and profits from pre-rolling.  “These index funds get eaten alive by people like me,” he says.

A look at 10 well-known funds based on commodity futures found that, since inception, all 10 have trailed the performance of their underlying raw materials, according to Bloomberg data.

*   *   *

Just as they did with subprime mortgage-backed securities, Wall Street banks are transferring wealth from their clients to their trading desks.  “You walk into a casino, you expect to lose money,” says Greg Forero, former director of commodities trading at UBS (UBS).  “It’s the same with these products.  You’re playing a game with a very high rake, a very high house advantage, and you’re not the house.”

Another problem caused by commodity ETFs is the havoc they create by raising prices of consumer goods – not because of a supply and demand effect – but purely by financial speculation:

Wheat prices jumped 52 percent in early 2008, setting records before plunging again, and sugar more than doubled last year even as the economy slowed, forcing Reinwald’s Bakery in Huntington, N.Y., to fire five of its 32 employees.  “You try and budget to make money, but that’s becoming impossible to predict,” says owner Richard Reinwald, chairman of the Retail Bakers of America.

Paul Farrell also brought our attention to an article entitled “ETFs Gone Wild” to highlight the hazards these products create for the entire financial system:

In Bloomberg Markets’ “ETFs Gone Wild,” investors are warned that many ETFs are “stuffed with exotic derivatives,” at risk of becoming “the next financial time bomb.”  In short, thanks to ETFs, Wall Street is already creating a dangerous new kind of global weapon of mass destruction — a bomb primed to detonate like the 2000 dot-coms, the 2008 subprimes — and detonation is dead ahead.

Mr. Farrell’s essay included a discussion of a Rolling Stone article by McKenzie Funk, describing the exploits of Phil Heilberg, a former AIG commodity trader.  The Rolling Stone piece demonstrated how commodity ETFs are just the latest weapon used to advance “Chaos Capitalism”:

And yet, as Funk puts it:  “Heilberg’s bet on chaos is beginning to play out on the streets.”  The toxic trail of commodity ETFs is already proving to be deadly, starving thousands worldwide, while the new Capitalists of Chaos only see incredible profit opportunities, as they make huge bets that they’ll get even richer in the next round of catastrophes, disasters, poverty, starvation and wars.

Bottom line: Commodity ETF/WMDs are mutating into a toxic pandemic fueled (and protected by) the insatiable greed of banks, traders and politicians whose brains are incapable of giving up their profit machine, won’t until it implodes and self-destructs.  The Wall Street Banksters have no sense of morals, no ethics, no soul, no goal in life other than getting very rich, very fast.  They care nothing of democracy, civilization or the planet.

Don’t count on the faux financial “reform” bill to remedy any of the problems created by commodity ETFs.  As the BusinessWeek article pointed out, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is going to have its hands full:

How much the new law will help remains to be seen, says Jill E. Sommers, one of the agency’s five commissioners, because Congress still needs to appropriate funds and write guidelines for implementation and enforcement.

Let’s not overlook the fact that those “guidelines” are going to be written by industry lobbyists.  The more things change — the more they remain the same.



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The End

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July 29, 2010

The long-awaited economic recovery seems to be coming to a premature end.  For over a year, many pundits have been anticipating a “jobless recovery”.  In other words:  don’t be concerned about the fact that so many people can’t find jobs – the economy will recover anyway.  These hopes have been buoyed by the widespread corporate tactic of cost-cutting (usually by mass layoffs) to gin-up the bottom line in time for earnings reports.  This helps inflate stock prices and produce the illusion that the broader economy is experiencing a sustained recovery.  The “jobless recovery” advocates ignore the extent to which the American economy is consumer-driven.  If those consumers don’t have jobs, they aren’t going to be spending money.

Although many observers seem to take comfort in the assumption that the jobless rate is below ten percent, many are beginning to question the validity of the statistics to that effect provided by the Department of Labor.  AOL’s Daily Finance website provided this commentary on the June, 2010 unemployment survey conducted by Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence:

The June poll turned up 27.8% of households with at least one member who’s unemployed and looking for a job, while the latest poll conducted in the second week of July showed 28.6% in that situation.  That translates to an unemployment rate of over 22%, says Mayur, who has started questioning the accuracy of the Labor Department’s jobless numbers.

*   *   *

In fact, Austan Goolsbee, who is now part of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a 2003 New York Times piece titled “The Unemployment Myth,” that the government had “cooked the books” by not correctly counting all the people it should, thereby keeping the unemployment rate artificially low.  At the time, Goolsbee was a professor at the University of Chicago.  When asked whether Goolsbee still believes the government undercounts unemployment, a White House spokeswoman said Goolsbee wasn’t available to comment.

Such undercounting of unemployment can be an enormously dangerous exercise today.  It could lead  some lawmakers to underestimate the gravity of the labor market’s problems and base their policymaking on a far-less-grim picture than actually exists.  Economically, and socially, that would make a bad situation much worse for America.

“The implications of such undercounting is that policymakers aren’t going to be thinking as big as they should be,” says Ginsburg, also a professor emeritus of economics at Brooklyn College.  “It also means that [consumer] demand is not going to be there, because the income from people who are employed isn’t going to be there.”

Frank Aquila of Sullivan & Cromwell recently wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, discussing the possibility that we could be headed into the second leg of a “double-dip” recession:

The sputtering economy and talk of a possible second recession have certainly rattled an already fragile American consumer.  Consumer confidence is now at its lowest level in a year, and consumer spending tumbled in May and June.  Since consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of  U.S. economic growth, a nervous consumer is not a good omen for a robust recovery.

Job creation is a key factor in increasing consumer confidence.  While economists estimate that we need economic growth of 4 percent or more to stimulate significant job creation, the economy has grown at only about 2 percent to 3 percent, with a slowdown expected in the second half.

*   *   *

With governments struggling under the weight of ballooning budget deficits and businesses waiting for the return of sustained growth, it is the American consumer who will have to lift the global economy out of the mire.  Given the recent news and current consumer sentiment, that appears to be an unlikely prospect in the near term.

The same government that found it necessary to provide corporate welfare to those “too big to fail” financial institutions has now become infested with creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks are now preaching the gospel of “austerity” as an excuse for roadblocking any further efforts to use any form of stimulus to end the economic crisis.  One of the gurus of the deficit chicken hawks is economic historian Niall Ferguson.  Because Ferguson is just an economic historian, a real economist – Brad DeLong — had no trouble exposing the hypocrisy exhibited by the Iraq war cheerleader, while revisiting an article Ferguson had written for The New York Times, back in 2003.  Matthew Yglesias had even more fun compiling and publishing a Ferguson (2003) vs. Ferguson (2010) debate.

At The Daily Beast, Sir Harry Evans emphasized how the sudden emphasis on “austerity” is worse than hypocrisy:

As for the banks, one of the obscenities of our time is that so many in the financial community who owe their survival to the massive taxpayer bailouts, not only rewarded themselves with absurd bonuses, but now have the gall to sport the plumage of deficit hawks.  The unemployed?  Let them eat cake, the day after tomorrow.

Gerald Celente, publisher of The Trends Journal, wrote a great essay for The Daily Reckoning website entitled, “Let Them Eat Losses”.  He pointed out how the kleptocracy violated and destroyed the “very essence of functioning capitalism”.  Worse yet, our government betrayed us by forcing the taxpayers “to finance the failed financiers”:

No individual, business, institution, nation or empire is too-big-to-fail.  Had true capitalism been allowed to function unimpeded, the bloated, over-extended, inefficient and gluttonous firms and industries would have failed.  There would have been hardships and losses but, finally rid of its financial tapeworms, the purged system could be restored to health.

No “ism” or “ology” — regardless of purity of intent or moral foundation — is immune to corruption and abuse.  While capitalism itself is being blamed for the excesses that brought on financial chaos, prior to the most recent gambling binge, in tandem with the blanket dismantling of safeguards and the overt takeover of Washington by Wall Street, capitalism was responsible for creating one of the world’s most successful and universally admired societies.

As I discussed on July 8, because President Obama lacked the political courage to advance an effective economic stimulus package last year, the effects of his “semi-stimulus” have now abated and we are headed into another recession.  Reuters reported on July 27 that Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University and co-developer of Standard and Poor’s S&P/Case-Shiller Index, gave us this unsettling macroeconomic prognostication:

“For me a double-dip is another recession before we’ve healed from this recession … The probability of that kind of double-dip is more than 50 percent,” Shiller said.

“I actually expect it.”

During the last few months of 2009, did you ever think that someday you would be looking back at that time as “the good old days”?




Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax

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June 28, 2010

You don’t have to look too far to find damning criticism of the so-called financial “reform” bill.  Once the Kaufman-Brown amendment was subverted (thanks to the Obama administration), the efforts to solve the problem of financial institutions’ growth to a state of being “too big to fail” (TBTF) became a lost cause.  Dylan Ratigan, who had been fuming for a while about the financial reform charade, had this to say about the product that emerged from reconciliation on Friday morning:

It means that the same people who brought you these horrible changes — rising wealth discrepancy, massive unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure – have now further institutionalized the policies that will keep the causes of these problems firmly in place.

The best trashing of this bill came from Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge:

Congrats, middle class, once again you get raped by Wall Street, which is off to the races to yet again rapidly blow itself up courtesy of 30x leverage, unlimited discount window usage, trillions in excess reserves, quadrillions in unregulated derivatives, a TBTF framework that has been untouched and will need a rescue in under a year, non-existent accounting rules, a culture of unmitigated greed, and all of Congress and Senate on its payroll.  And, sorry, you can’t even vote some of the idiots that passed this garbage out:  after all there is a retiring lame duck in charge of it all.  We can only hope his annual Wall Street (i.e. taxpayer funded) annuity will satisfy his conscience for destroying any hope America could have of a credible financial system.

*   *   *

In other words, the greatest theatrical production of the past few months is now over, it has achieved nothing, it will prevent nothing, and ultimately the financial markets will blow up yet again, but not before the Teleprompter in Chief pummels the idiot public with address after address how he singlehandedly was bribed, pardon, achieved a historic event of being the only president to completely crumble under Wall Street’s pressure on every item that was supposed to reign in the greatest risktaking generation (with Other People’s Money) in history.

Robert Lenzner of Forbes focused his criticism of the bill on the fact that nothing was done to limit the absurd leverage used by the banks to borrow against their capital.  After all, at the January 13 hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan’s Dimon Dog admitted that excessive leverage was a key problem in causing the financial crisis.  As I discussed in “Lev Is The Drug”:

Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a  23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner discussed the ugly truth about how the limits on leverage were excised from this bill:

The capitulation on this matter of leverage is extraordinary evidence of Wall Street’s power to influence Congress through its lobbying dollars.  It is another example of the public servants serving the agents of finance capitalism.  After pumping in gobs of sovereign credit to replace the credit that had been wiped out and replace the supply of credit to the economic system, a weak reform bill will just be an invitation to drum up the leverage that caused the crisis in the first place.

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some more negative reactions to the bill, along with her own cutting commentary:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

The only two measures I see as genuine accomplishments, the Audit the Fed provisions, and the creation of a consumer financial product bureau, do not address systemic risks.  And the consumer protection authority was substantially watered down.  Recall a crucial provision, that banks be required to offer plain vanilla variants of products, was axed early on.

So there you have it.  The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.





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Demolition Derby

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June 24, 2010

They’re at the starting line, getting ready to trash the economy and turn our “great recession” into a full-on Great Depression II (to steal an expression from Paul Farrell).  Barry Ritholtz calls them the “deficit chicken hawks”.  The Reformed Broker recently wrote a clever piece which incorporated a moniker coined by Mark Thoma, the “Austerians”,  in reference to that same (deficit chicken hawk) group.   The Reformed Broker described them this way:

.  .  .  this gang has found a sudden (upcoming election-related) pang of concern over deficits and our ability to finance them.  Critics say the Austerians’ premature tightness will send the economy off a cliff, a la the 1930’s.

Count me among those who believe that the Austerians are about to send the economy off a cliff – or as I see it:  into a Demolition Derby.  The first smash-up in this derby was to sabotage any potential recovery in the job market.  Economist Scott Brown made this observation at the Seeking Alpha website:

One issue in deficit spending is deciding how much is enough to carry us through.  Removing fiscal stimulus too soon risks derailing the recovery.  Anti-deficit sentiment has already hampered a push for further stimulus to support job growth.  Across the Atlantic, austerity moves threaten to dampen European economic growth in 2011.  Long term, deficit reduction is important, but short term, it’s just foolish.

The second event in the Demolition Derby is to deny the extension of unemployment benefits.  Because the unemployed don’t have any money to bribe legislators, they make a great target.  David Herszenhorn of The New York Times discussed the despair expressed by Senator Patty Murray of Washington after the Senate’s failure to pass legislation extending unemployment compensation:

“This is a critical piece of legislation for thousands of families in our country, who want to know whether their United States Senate and Congress is on their side or is going to turn their back on them, right at a critical time when our economy is just starting to get around the corner,” Mrs. Murray said.

The deficit chicken hawk group isn’t just from the Republican side of the aisle.  You can count Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe “The Tool” Lieberman among their ranks.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times lamented Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s preference for maintaining “the markets’ confidence in Washington” at the expense of the unemployed:

Look around at the American economy today.  Unemployment is 9.7 percent.  Inflation in recent months has been zero.  States are cutting their budgets.  Congress is balking at spending the money to prevent state layoffs.  The Fed is standing pat, too.  Bond investors, fickle as they may be, show no signs of panicking.

Which seems to be the greater risk:  too much action or too little?

The Demolition Derby is not limited to exacerbating the unemployment crisis.  It involves sabotaging the economic recovery as well.  In my last posting, I discussed a recent report by Comstock Partners, highlighting ten reasons why the so-called economic rebound from the financial crisis has been quite weak.  The report’s conclusion emphasized the necessity of additional fiscal stimulus:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

In a recent essay, John Mauldin provided a detailed explanation of how premature deficit reduction efforts  can impair economic recovery:

In the US, we must start to get our fiscal house in order.  But if we cut the deficit by 2% of GDP a year, that is going to be a drag on growth in what I think is going to be a slow growth environment to begin with.  If you raise taxes by 1% combined with 1% cuts (of GDP) that will have a minimum effect of reducing GDP by around 2% initially.  And when you combine those cuts at the national level with tax increases and spending cuts of more than 1% of GDP at state and local levels you have even further drags on growth.

Those who accept Robert Prechter’s Elliott Wave Theory for analyzing stock market charts to make predictions of long-term financial trends, already see it coming:  a cataclysmic crash.   As Peter Brimelow recently discussed at MarketWatch, Prechter expects to see the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop below 1,000:

The clearest statement comes from the Elliott Wave Theorist, discussing a numerological technical theory with which it supplements the Wave Theory’s complex patterns:  “The only way for the developing configuration to satisfy a perfect set of Fibonacci time relationships is for the stock market to fall over the next six years and bottom in 2016.”

*   *   *

There will be a short-term rally at some point, thinks Prechter, but it will be a trap:  “The 7.25-year and 20-year cycles are both scheduled to top in 2012, suggesting that 2012 will mark the last vestiges of self-destructive hope.  Then the final years of decline will usher in capitulation and finally despair.”

So it is written.  The Demolition Derby shall end in disaster.





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Your Sleazy Government At Work

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May 31, 2010

Although the cartoon above appeared in my local paper, it came to my attention only because Barry Ritholtz posted it on his website, The Big Picture.  Congratulations to Jim Morin of The Miami Herald for creating one of those pictures that’s worth well over a thousand words.

Forget about all that oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico.  President Obama, Harry Reid and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd are too busy indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation over the Senate’s passage of a so-called “financial reform” bill (S. 3217) to be bothered with “the fishermen’s buzzkill”.  Meanwhile, many commentators are expressing their disappointment and disgust at the fact that the banking lobby has succeeded in making sure that the taxpayers will continue to pick up the tab when the banks go broke trading unregulated derivatives.

Matt Taibbi has written a fantastic essay for Rolling Stone, documenting the creepy battle over financial reform in the Senate.  The folks at Rolling Stone are sure getting their money’s worth out of Taibbi, after his landmark smackdown of Goldman Sachs and his revealing article exposing the way banks such as JP Morgan Chase fleeced Jefferson County, Alabama.  In his latest “must read” essay, Taibbi provides his readers with an understandable discussion of what is wrong with derivatives trading and Wall Street’s efforts to preserve the status quo:

Imagine a world where there’s no New York Stock Exchange, no NASDAQ or Nikkei:  no open exchanges at all, and all stocks traded in the dark.  Nobody has a clue how much a share of  IBM costs or how many of them are being traded.  In that world, the giant broker-dealer who trades thousands of IBM shares a day, and who knows which of its big clients are selling what and when, will have a hell of a lot more information than the day-trader schmuck sitting at home in his underwear, guessing at the prices of stocks via the Internet.

That world exists.  It’s called the over-the-counter derivatives market. Five of the country’s biggest banks, the Goldmans and JP Morgans and Morgan Stanleys, account for more than 90 percent of the market, where swaps of all shapes and sizes are traded more or less completely in the dark.  If you want to know how Greece finds itself bankrupted by swaps, or some town in Alabama overpaid by $93 million for deals to fund a sewer system, this is the explanation:  Nobody outside a handful of big swap dealers really has a clue about how much any of this shit costs, which means they can rip off their customers at will.

This insane outgrowth of  jungle capitalism has spun completely out of control since 2000, when Congress deregulated the derivatives market.  That market is now roughly 100 times bigger than the federal budget and 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP.  Unregulated derivative deals sank AIG, Lehman Brothers and Greece, and helped blow up the global economy in 2008.  Reining in derivatives is the key battle in the War for Finance Reform.  Without regulation of this critical market, Wall Street could explode another mushroom cloud of nuclear leverage and risk over the planet at any time.

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson de-mystified how both the Senate’s “financial reform” bill and the bill passed by the House require standardized derivatives to be traded on an exchange or a “swap execution facility”.  Although these proposals create the illusion of reform – it’s important to keep in mind that old maxim about gambling:  “The house always wins.”  In this case, the ability to “front-run” the chumps gives the house the power to keep winning:

But the devil is always in the details — hence, two 1,500-page bills — and problems arise in how the proposals define what constitutes a swap execution facility, and who can own one.

Big banks want to create and own the venues where swaps are traded, because such control has many benefits.  First, it gives the dealers extremely valuable pretrade information from customers wishing to buy or sell these instruments.  Second, depending on how these facilities are designed, they may let dealers limit information about pricing when transactions take place — and if an array of prices is not readily available, customers can’t comparison-shop and the banks get to keep prices much higher than they might be on an exchange.

*   *   *

Finally, lawmakers who are charged with consolidating the two bills are talking about eliminating language that would bar derivatives facilities from receiving taxpayer bailouts if they get into trouble.  That means a federal rescue of an imperiled derivatives trading facility could occur.  (Again, think A.I.G.)

Surely, we beleaguered taxpayers do not need to backstop any more institutions than we do now.  According to Jeffrey M. Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., only 18 percent of the nation’s financial sector was covered by implied federal guarantees in 1999.  By the end of 2008, his bank’s research shows, the federal safety net covered 59 percent of the financial sector.

In a speech last week, Mr. Lacker said that he feared we were going to perpetuate the cycle of financial crises followed by taxpayer bailouts, in spite of Congressional reform efforts.

“Arguably, we will not break the cycle of regulation, bypass, crisis and rescue,”  Mr. Lacker said, “until we are willing to clarify the limits to government support, and incur the short-term costs of confirming those limits, in the interest of building a stronger and durable foundation for our financial system.  Measured against this gauge, my early assessment is that progress thus far has been negligible.”

Negligible progress, 3,000 pages notwithstanding.

When one considers what this legislation was intended to address, the dangers posed by failing to extinguish those systemic threats to the economy and what the Senate bill is being claimed to remedy  —  it’s actually just a huge, sleazy disgrace.  Matt Taibbi’s concluding words on the subject underscore the fact that not only do we still need real financial reform, we also need campaign finance reform:

Whatever the final outcome, the War for Finance Reform serves as a sweeping demonstration of how power in the Senate can be easily concentrated in the hands of just a few people.  Senators in the majority party – Brown, Kaufman, Merkley, even a committee chairman like Lincoln – took a back seat to Reid and Dodd, who tinkered with amendments on all four fronts of  the war just enough to keep many of them from having real teeth.  “They’re working to come up with a bill that Wall Street can live with, which by definition makes it a bad bill,” one Democratic aid eexplained in the final, frantic days of negotiation.

On the plus side, the bill will rein in some forms of predatory lending, and contains a historic decision to audit the Fed.  But the larger, more important stuff – breaking up banks that grow Too Big to Fail, requiring financial giants to pay upfront for their own bailouts, forcing the derivatives market into the light of day – probably won’t happen in any meaningful way.  The Senate is designed to function as a kind of ongoing negotiation between public sentiment and large financial interests, an endless tug of war in which senators maneuver to strike a delicate mathematical balance between votes and access to campaign cash.  The problem is that sometimes, when things get really broken, the very concept of a middle ground between real people and corrupt special interests becomes a grotesque fallacy.  In times like this, we need our politicians not to bridge a gap but to choose sides and fight.  In this historic battle over finance reform, when we had a once-in-a-generation chance to halt the worst abuses on Wall Street, many senators made the right choice.  In the end, however, the ones who mattered most picked wrong – and a war that once looked winnable will continue to drag on for years, creating more havoc and destroying more lives before it is over.

The sleazy antics by the Democrats who undermined financial reform (while pretending to advance it) will not be forgotten by the voters.  The real question is whether any independent candidates can step up to oppose the tools of Wall Street, relying on the nickels and dimes from “the little people” to wage a battle against the kleptocracy.






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Moment Of Truth

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May 24, 2010

Now that the Senate has passed its own version of a financial reform bill (S. 3217), the legislation must be reconciled with the House version before the bill can be signed into law by the President.  At this point, there is one big problem:  the President doesn’t like the bill because it actually has more teeth than an inbred, moonshine-drinking, meth head.  One especially objectionable provision in the eyes of the Administration and its kindred of the kleptocracy, Ben Bernanke, concerns the restrictions on derivatives trading introduced by Senator Blanche Lincoln.

Eric Lichtblau and Edward Wyatt of The New York Times wrote an article describing the current game plan of financial industry lobbyists to remove those few teeth from the financial reform bill to make sure that what the President signs is all gums:

The biggest flash point for many Wall Street firms is the tough restrictions on the trading of derivatives imposed in the Senate bill approved Thursday night.  Derivatives are securities whose value is based on the price of other assets like corn, soybeans or company stock.

The financial industry was confident that a provision that would force banks to spin off their derivatives businesses would be stripped out, but in the final rush to pass the bill, that did not happen.

The opposition comes not just from the financial industry.  The chairman of the Federal Reserve and other senior banking regulators opposed the provision, and top Obama administration officials have said they would continue to push for it to be removed.

And Wall Street lobbyists are mounting an 11th-hour effort to remove it when House and Senate conferees begin meeting, perhaps this week, to reconcile their two bills.  Lobbyists say they are already considering the possible makeup of the conference panel to focus on office visits and potential fund-raising.

The article discussed an analysis provided to The New York Times by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan group:

The group’s analysis found that the 14 freshmen who serve on the House Financial Services Committee raised 56 percent more in campaign contributions than other freshmen.  And most freshmen on the panel, the analysis found, are now in competitive re-election fights.

“It’s definitely not accidental,” said Melanie Sloan, the director of the ethics group. “It appears that Congressional leaders are deliberately placing vulnerable freshmen on the Financial Services Committee to increase their ability to raise money.”

Take Representative John Adler, Democrat of New Jersey.  Mr. Adler is a freshman in Congress with no real national profile, yet he has managed to raise more than $2 million for his re-election, more than any other freshman, the analysis found.

That is due in large part, political analysts say, to his spot on the Financial Services Committee.

An opinion piece from the May 24 Wall Street Journal provided an equally-sobering outlook on this legislation:

The unifying theme of the Senate bill that passed last week and the House bill of last year is to hand even more discretion and authority to the same regulators who failed to foresee and in many cases created the last crisis.  The Democrats who wrote the bill are selling it as new discipline for Wall Street, but Wall Street knows better.  The biggest banks support the bill, and the parts they don’t like they will lobby furiously to change or water down.

Big Finance will more than hold its own with Big Government, as it always does, while politicians will have more power to exact even more campaign tribute.  The losers are the overall economy, as financial costs rise, and taxpayers when the next bailout arrives.

At The Huffington Post, Mary Bottari discussed the backstory on Blanche Lincoln’s derivatives reform proposal and the opposition it faces from both lobbyists and the administration:

The Obama Administration Wants to Kill the Best Provisions

Lincoln’s proposal has come under fire from all fronts.  Big bank lobbyists went ballistic of course and they will admit that getting her language pulled from the bill is still their top priority.  Behind the scenes, it is also the top priority of the administration and the Federal Reserve.  Believe it or not the administration is fighting to preserve its ability to bailout any financial institutions that gets in trouble, not just commercial banks.  Yep that is right.  Instead of clamping down Wall Street gambling, the administration wants to keep reckless institutions on the teat of the Federal Reserve.

The battle lines are drawn.  The biggest threat to the Lincoln language now is the Obama administration and the Federal Reserve.  There will no doubt be a move to strip out the strong Lincoln language in conference committee where the House and Senate versions of the bank reform bill now go to be aligned.

Meanwhile, President Obama continues to pose as the champion of the taxpayers, asserting his bragging rights for the Senate’s passage of the bill.  Jim Kuhnhenn of MSNBC made note of Obama’s remark, which exhibited the Executive Spin:

The financial industry, Obama said, had tried to stop the new regulations “with hordes of lobbyists and millions of dollars in ads.”

In fact, the lobbyists have just begun to fight and Obama is right in their corner, along with Ben Bernanke.



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Banking Lobby Tools In Senate Subvert Reform

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May 20. 2010

The financial pseudo-reform bill is being exposed as a farce.  Thanks to its tools in the Senate, the banking lobby is on the way toward defeating any significant financial reform.  Although Democrats in the Senate (and the President himself) have been posing as reformers who stand up to those “fat cat bankers”, their actions are speaking much louder than their words.  What follows is a list of the Senate Democrats who voted against both the Kaufman – Brown amendment (to prevent financial institutions from being “too big to fail”) as well as the amendment calling for more Federal Reserve transparency (sponsored by Republican David Vitter to comport with Congressman Ron Paul’s original “Audit the Fed” proposal – H.R. 1207 – which was replaced by the watered-down S. 3217 ):

Akaka (D-HI), Baucus (D-MT), Bayh (D-IN), Bennet (D-CO), Carper (D-DE), Conrad (D-ND), Dodd (D-CT), Feinstein (D-CA), Gillibrand (D-NY), Hagan (D-NC), Inouye (D-HI), Johnson (D-SD), Kerry (D-MA), Klobuchar (D-MN), Kohl (D-WI), Landrieu (D-LA), Lautenberg (D-NJ), Lieberman (ID-CT), McCaskill (D-MO), Menendez (D-NJ), Nelson (D-FL), Nelson (D-NE), Reed (D-RI), Schumer (D-NY), Shaheen (D-NH), Tester (D-MT), Udall (D-CO) and Mark Warner (D-VA).

I wasn’t surprised to see Senator Chuck Schumer on this list because, after all, Wall Street is located in his state.  But how about Senator Claire McCaskill?  Remember her performance at the April 27 hearing before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations?   She really went after those banksters – didn’t she?  Why would she suddenly turn around and support the banks in opposing those two amendments?   I suppose the securities and investment industry is entitled to a little payback, after having given her campaign committee $265,750.

I was quite disappointed to see Senator Amy Klobuchar on that list.  Back on June 19, 2008, I included her in a piece entitled “Women to Watch”.  Now, almost exactly two years later, we are watching her serve as a tool for the securities and investment industry, which has given her campaign committee $224,325.  On the other hand, another female Senator whom I discussed in that same piece, Maria Cantwell of Washington, has been standing firm in opposing attempts to leave some giant loopholes in Senator Blanche Lincoln’s amendment concerning derivatives trading reform.  The Huffington Post described how Harry Reid attempted to use cloture to push the financial reform bill to a vote before any further amendments could have been added to strengthen the bill.  Notice how “the usual suspects” – Reid, Chuck Schumer and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd tried to close in on Cantwell and force her capitulation to the will of the kleptocracy:

There were some unusually Johnsonian moments of wrangling on the floor during the nearly hour-long vote.  Reid pressed his case hard on Snowe, the lone holdout vote present, with Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell at her side.  After finding Brown, he put his arm around him and shook his head, then found Cantwell seated alone at the opposite end of the floor.  He and New York’s Chuck Schumer encircled her, Reid leaning over her with his right arm on the back of her chair and Schumer leaning in with his left hand on her desk.  Cantwell stared straight ahead, not looking at the men even as she spoke.  Schumer called in Chris Dodd, who was unable to sway her.  Feingold hadn’t stuck around.  Cantwell, according to a spokesman, wanted a guarantee on an amendment that would fix a gaping hole in the derivatives section of the bill, which requires the trades to be cleared, but applies no penalty to trades that aren’t, making Blanche Lincoln’s reform package little better than a list of suggestions.

*   *   *

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off good consumer amendments because of cloture,” said Cantwell on Tuesday night.

Other amendments offered by Democrats would ban banks from proprietary trading, cap ATM fees at 50 cents, impose new limits on the payday lending industry, prohibit naked credit default swaps and reinstate Glass-Steagall regulations that prohibit banks from owning investment firms.

“We need to eliminate the risk posed to our economy by ‘too big to fail’ financial firms and to reinstate the protective firewalls between Main Street banks and Wall Street firms,” said Feingold in a statement after the vote.  Feingold supported the amendment to reinstate Glass-Steagall, among others.

“Unfortunately, these key reforms are not included in the bill,” he said.  “The test for this legislation is a simple one — whether it will prevent another financial crisis.  As the bill stands, it fails that test.  Ending debate on the bill is finishing before the job is done.”

Russ Feingold’s criticisms of the bill were consistent with those voiced by economist Nouriel Roubini (often referred to as “Doctor Doom” because he was one of the few economists to anticipate the scale of the financial crisis).  Barbara Stcherbatcheff of CNBC began her report on Dr. Roubini’s May 18 speech with this statement:

Current efforts to reform financial regulation are “cosmetic” and won’t prevent another crisis, economist Nouriel Roubini told an audience on Tuesday at the London School of Economics.

The current mid-term primary battles have fueled a never-ending stream of commentary following the same narrative:  The wrath of the anti-incumbency movement shall be felt in Washington.  Nevertheless, Dylan Ratigan seems to be the only television commentator willing to include “opposition to financial reform” as a political liability for Congressional incumbents.  Yves Smith raised the issue on her Naked Capitalism website with an interesting essay focused on this theme:

Why have political commentators been hesitant to connect the dots between the “no incumbent left standing” movement and the lack of meaningful financial reform?

Her must-read analysis of the “head fakes” going on within the financial reform wrangling concludes with this thought:

So despite the theatrics in Washington, I recommend lowering your expectations greatly for the result of financial reform efforts.  There have been a few wins (for instance, the partial success of the Audit the Fed push), but other measures have for the most part been announced with fanfare and later blunted or excised.  Even though the firestorm of Goldman-related press stiffened the spines of some Senators and produced a late-in-process flurry of amendments, don’t let a blip distract you from the trend line, that as the legislative process proceeds apace, the banks will be able to achieve an outcome that leaves their dubious business models and most important, the rich pay to industry incumbents, largely intact.

As always, it’s up to the voting public with the short memory to unseat those tools of the banking lobby.  Our only alternative is to prepare for the next financial crisis.



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